Photo: Nicolae Stoian
It took Danny Mwanga eight minutes to do what Lionard Pajoy hasn’t done in 367: Create a goal.
If that one play isn’t a good enough reason of why Mwanga needs to replace Pajoy in Philadelphia Union’s starting lineup, here are a few more.
- Only one team in Major League Soccer has a worse goals-per-game rate than the Union’s 0.71 goals per game.
- No MLS team has taken fewer shots (9) or shots on goal (2.4) per game than the Union.
- Pajoy hasn’t taken a shot on or off target in a month. That’s three regular season games with no shots from a starting striker.
- One of the most common sights in the Union attack is a through ball into space to which an opposing defender outruns Pajoy.
We can talk about changing formations till the sky falls, but we’ll keep this simple. Whatever the Union are trying to do with their attacking corps, it’s not working, and Pajoy is a big part of why.
Pajoy clearly fits the model Union manager Peter Nowak wants for his system: A target forward to serve as a pivot off whom his midfielders can make runs. First it was Alejandro Moreno, then Carlos Ruiz. Moreno passed, moved and created space well but didn’t score. Ruiz simply wouldn’t move.
Pajoy is planting himself in the center of the field, leaning right more often than not (see Saturday’s chalkboard) and not proving particularly mobile or linking up well with the attacking midfielders. After years in softer, more technically sound Latin American leagues, he’s yet to adjust to the more physical play in MLS.
Is it all on Pajoy though? Probably not.
Nowak wants to control possession and appears to feel he can best do that with a five-man midfield. With D.C. United, Nowak typically played a 3-5-2, but there, he had the personnel at all three tiers of the team to do it, including a trio of goal-scorers in Jaime Moreno, Christian Gomez and Alecko Eskandarian.
Since day 1 with the Union, Nowak has deployed formations with two holding midfielders. If Nowak could pull off a 3-5-2 with the Union, he probably would. The roster looks built for a 3-5-2, with just two true center backs. It’s the formation of choice when the Union are chasing a goal, as on Saturday, when Cristhian Hernandez’s entry heralded a formation shift. But it hasn’t worked for extended periods of time, because opponents exploit the three-man back line on which Carlos Valdes may be the only natural fit.
Unwilling to sacrifice the possession game with a target forward pivot, Nowak has more often deployed a functional 4-2-3-1 this season. Michael Farfan and Freddy Adu have shown flashes of danger in the attacking third, but Pajoy’s offered little.
It’s telling that the first time Pajoy was substituted before the final minutes was during Nowak’s suspension. While Pajoy’s 75th minute removal led to a Union goal, it may have also indirectly resulted in a San Jose goal. Had assistant coach John Hackworth not had to waste a sub on Pajoy, he could have replaced a fatigued Adu with defender Chris Albright when the Union were trying to close the game. A legitimate fullback (Albright or Sheanon Williams) might have stopped Marvin Chavez from unleashing his game-winning cross. Instead, Chavez dusted Jack McInerney and Adu to find Steven Lenhart for the climactic goal.
It’s pretty simple: Why not?
Did Mwanga suddenly forget how to play? Did he suddenly forget how to find the net? Is he suddenly no longer a promising prospect?
He’s 20 years old, he was drafted to be a future star, but he hasn’t started three consecutive games since October 2010. Yet it was that promising rookie season that captured the imaginations of Union fans, who saw not just the seven goals he scored but also his passing vision and chemistry with Sebastien Le Toux.
No, Mwanga isn’t the prototypical target forward. He’s more interesting than that. When he runs, there’s actually speed involved. When he passes, the potential for goals exists. When he coolly dropped a pass back to Gabriel Gomez for a goal Saturday, he did exactly what you want from a target man and exactly what Pajoy hasn’t provided. Mwanga’s talent ceiling remains as high as ever.
Pajoy’s struggles have done nothing to make people forget Le Toux and all the goals and assists he took with him. If the Union are really building with youth, a 30-year-old journeyman striker who isn’t scoring or linking to midfield is no way to go.
It’s time for Mwanga, just like it always was.